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Chris Thile Gets by With a Little Help From His Friends to Wrap This Year of 'Live From Here'

Chris Thile
Brantley Gutierrez

Chris Thile

Chris Thile has made it his business -- literally -- to spend his Saturday nights in excellent company. The Punch Brothers mandolin-slinger picked up the mantle of A Prairie Home Companion in 2016, and turned the public radio institution into a must-hear variety hour featuring conversations and performances with friends and idols across music.

It's been a banner year for the program, which was reconfigured and re-named in 2017 to Live From Here under Thile's direction: Kacey Musgraves, Jeff Tweedy, Ben Folds, Lindsey Buckingham all stepped up to its microphone over the course of the last twelve months, and Live From Here extends to 2.6 million listeners -- a number which doesn't include those who fill theaters across the country when Thile takes the radio show on the road.

He's especially thrilled to mount his last four Live From Here gigs at home in New York at Town Hall, about a half-hour train ride away from his home in Brooklyn and just down the street from the giant Christmas tree in Rockefeller Center, the Rockettes decking Radio City Music Hall with their high-kicks and the tinsel-strewn windows of Fifth Avenue. The trains are crowded this time of year, and the slushy sidewalks are, too, but Thile is thrilled to make his way through all of that to Town Hall -- where Cat Power, Maggie Rogers, St. Vincent, Jon Batiste, Rachel Price of Lake Street Dive and many more will join him on Dec. 1, 8, 15 and 22 -- to sing a few songs and listen to some of his favorite artists do the same.

The chaotic energy from the city can be overwhelming, especially at the close of such a chaotic year, but Thile's looking forward to creating a space where his crowd and his listeners can tune out the noise from outside -- and channeling that fury and feedback into something good.

"This city hums with life, with music -- it’s all around, even on delayed subway voyages, which can be excruciating," he says. "Steve Earle once told me, 'Man, you gotta take your earbuds out when you’re riding the train. You’re gonna miss all the songs.' I’ve really taken that to heart! Your next song or whatever it is, your next piece of work, it’s there -- it’s while you’re waiting in line for coffee. It’s on the train. It’s in the ghostly sounds still echoing down the hall from performances past. It’s all there. They’re all running around; you just have to assemble them."

Below, Thile walks Billboard through his upcoming residency at Town Hall and reflects on his year of Live From Here, and where he wants to take it in 2019.

Between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve, millions of people visit Manhattan. Was that part of your decision to mount this month-long residency here, the prospect of hosting this in the city during the holidays?

This is a particularly magical slice of America during the holidays -- not just America but also the world. There are so many people here and our show runs on people. The idea that if we can gather together on early Saturday evening -- whether it be at Town Hall or via the radio or the Internet or whatever -- there’s an almost religious aspect of the thing. No matter how secularly you experience the holidays, I think there is this heightened awareness of something bigger than yourself.

Nowhere is that more true than New York City. The buildings towering above you, for instance: they’re reminders of what human beings can accomplish when they band together and simply work hard. Even just for all the people coming in from other places, maybe where the buildings aren’t so tall, maybe you can run into someone at the bar and learn something about where they’re from, the grandeur of where they are. It’s a meeting place, New York is, during the holidays. I think building this month of shows right smack in the middle of that meeting place, literally called Town Hall -- it pours a lot of fuel on the fire for me.

After a year of learning the ropes of the program, you saw through the re-brand from Prairie Home Companion to Live From Here in 2017. Now, you’re a year out from that. How has it been for you to have Live From Here during the last two years? 

Boy, never a dull moment, never a lack of material. My first season as host of the show, it was in the last few months of the 2016 election season, and everything has been crazy every since. I would love to see what it was like to host the show during a period of relative tranquility, but this is where it is.

I guess I would just wish everyone had an outlet like this, a place to put all these feelings. If they don’t have one, they’re just so welcome to use our show as that outlet. Or if they do, maybe the show can be fuel for their fire the way New York in the holidays is fuel for my fire. But yeah -- it’s been a tumultuous couple of years. Anything that’s happened to me pales in comparison to what’s going on. Even right now, as we’re preparing for the holidays in the wake of the fires out in California and now this situation at the border -- I want to just try and figure out how to spread the warmth and generosity of this time of the year everywhere, you know, and take it down there to the border, and pour it all over the fires down there.

There are no quick and easy fixes to any of this, but I think those moments when we feel like it’s maybe going to be okay, those tend to happen when we’re in each other’s company. The show gives me an opportunity to seek your company out on a weekly basis. I get this reminder every week. I consider myself incredibly lucky in that regard. My job is to keep my ear to the ground and sometimes I wish I could rip my ear away from the ground and put some headphones on and escape. But at the same time, I’m always amazed how comforting the company of my fellow human beings is.

Let’s talk about this wrecking crew of fellow human beings -- Cat Power, Rachael Price, St. Vincent, Jon Batiste and more. What made you want to work with these artists for these shows, especially? Did geography play a part in that?

As far as how we arrange these evenings, it’s a little like cooking: you’re looking for all of these contrasting but complimentary ingredients. Of course, every ingredient is delicious all on its own. I just love seeing what happens when yellow meets blue and what happens on our show is going to be the green to their yellow and blue. We’re just sitting there getting all kinds of different shades of colors based on who shows up. That’s kind of how I go about making or selecting guests for these shows, looking at these contrasting colors and flavors.

Nearly everyone on this Town Hall roster had a huge 2018. Did they put out any songs or albums that you thought, I can’t get this out of my head and I’m so excited for them to bring this to Town Hall?

There are so many! I got to see Vulfpeck live earlier this year, and it was one of those experiences that was life-affirming, not to get too grandiose about it. It was one of those moments I mentioned earlier where it really felt like it was going to be okay. You had this extraordinary group of musicians clearly loving being in each other’s company and loving the company of the people who were there, all of us who were watching. There was just something so infectious about it. I sat on the side of the stage wishing so earnestly for them to be on my radio show. [Laughs.]

Now that that’s happening, that’s really exciting. And God, what Annie [Clark, a.k.a. St. Vincent] has done through this touring cycle with both iterations of [MASSEDUCTION], and what she’s been doing since that first record -- I mean, I’m such a huge fan, and I’m really looking forward to her being on the program. I have Cat Power, and I’m such a fan. This guy Jacob Collier is just a phenom from London, that’s really exciting. Maggie Rogers, I met her for the first time at Newport and we got to do that thing with Jon and Brandi Carlile, which was really fun. It’s just going to be delights through and through. Jon was on the show the first season and we did a similar thing to what you saw at Newport, but for that one, we just set a clock up and had a tickdown while we were improvising.

Make that album!

Yeah, right?! We keep talking about trying to do something. But then also, we have The Knights for the final show, which will be a proper holiday show -- the Knights are an incredible New York-based chamber orchestra. That’ll be fun. I look forward to trying to write something for all of us to play together.

This is a fantastic way to close out 2018, but I’m looking into your 2019 schedule, and you’re also headlining Carnegie Hall this coming March -- it seems like this is just continuing to grow. Where do you want to take Live From Here next year?

As far as the development of the show, I have this feeling that it just keeps turning more and more completely into itself. Hopefully, we’ll do that as long as it’s on air. Every week there’s a format, a template, and we keep tweaking it so that it’s more and more malleable in relation to the week that precedes each show. I just want it to be more and more transparent.

I’m a huge wine geek, so stay with me there, because this is a bit of a reach: In wine, people are always talking about the transparency of winemaking, that you want the wine to taste like where it’s from. You don’t want to taste like the winemaker; you want it to taste like the soil where the grape was grown in the region that soil is. You want wines of place. I want a show of time and place. I don’t really want the show to necessarily be its own thing. I would love for it to be a vehicle that we, as citizens of the world, can kind of drive around in to the people we feel like we need to be hanging out with, that can use our company, or to people whose company we feel like we could use [Laughs.] I actually do feel that the most enlightened version of this show is just a pure sonic reflection of the week that precedes it.

Earlier this year, you told us that Live From Here impacted your Punch Brothers album. How has Live From Here left an impact you didn’t expect on you as an artist?

Live From Here has turned me back into a music fan, as opposed to purely a music maker. I had sort of fallen into a very kind of almost mercenary relationship with music, where I would listen to what I thought was improving me as a musician, listening to music almost as an athlete trains in the gym: “this piece of music is going to help improve my sense of harmony or structure or counterpoint or lyric writing.” [I wasn’t] actually listening for any sort of personal edification or joy, for that matter.

I’ve always taken a lot of joy in my work, but it’s also been very results-oriented. It’s kind of like, making the thing, and taking a lot of joy in that, as opposed to allowing myself to be transported by the work of my fellow musicians. I think that’s the biggest surprise, rediscovering some sort of innocence with regards to music, and being able to take those moments on the air, feeding the microphone to ridiculously gifted people, sitting down on the floor and letting what they have made just spirit me away.

It all comes back to deep, committed listening -- even when we go back to the beginning of this conversation when we were talking about finding inspiration on the subway.

That’s exactly it. If there’s anything that I would stress about what’s important about the show, what’s important about being alive right now, it’s paying attention. Just how essential it is to pay attention. By all means, tune out, log off here and there, but then pay attention how we do that when we log off. We could move away from the thing that infecting us or we could march right up to something else that is going to make us feel better. And maybe give us a hint as to how we can neutralize that mess of things.

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